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Latinos Find an America on the Border of Acceptance

By Sergio Troncoso

Drawings by Jorge Enciso

Recently I have seen a deepening appreciation of Latino culture throughout America --from literature to movies to popular music and art-- and I have never been prouder to say I am the son of Mexican immigrants. When I went to Harvard and Yale years ago, I felt like an alien, in more ways than one. Imagine starting out without running water and electricity on the Mexican-American border and finding yourself, at eighteen years of age, in Harvard Square. Many things seemed strange to me on the East Coast, but the strangest was the almost complete Euro-centric view in everything from economics to politics to philosophy. I was determined to bust open closed minds, to point them toward Latin America, Latinos, especially Chicanos. The future of America, as I saw it.

Now that this future is arriving at a frenzied pace, now that the doors are starting to crack open for the popular acceptance of Latino culture, at least among the media elite, I see it's a pick-and-choose acceptance. There is little patience for discussing immigration issues and particularly the plight of day laborers and farm workers and other recent immigrants, who often can't yet defend themselves in English.

Why this dichotomy? Men and boys salivate over Salma Hayek as an absolute babe. Having 'Lopez' or 'Martinez' for a surname doesn't disqualify you anymore from being a top box-office draw or the best pitcher in America's pastime. The definition of an intense and intelligent American actor has to now include one Benicio del Toro. And yet, in each case, if they are not outright Latin American, they are the sons or daughters of Latin Americans, recent immigrants to the United States who have made it, and big. Shall we not also turn our eyes to those poor immigrants in this country who are still struggling against racism and poverty and language barriers, who might one day raise a son or a daughter even Hollywood or MTV can be proud of?

We still ignore the many issues of immigration while we have begun to embrace Latino culture because, first, this acceptance is at its beginning and most superficial phase. We can lionize the extremely beautiful and exceptionally talented Latinos, whether they be Chicanos from California or Puerto Ricans from the Bronx, more easily than we can have a meaningful discussion about the irrational fears of non-Latinos to the growing Latino community. These fears even come from the African-American community where some believe in a zero-sum political game, that the growth of Latino influence and power will translate into less influence and power for that community. The recent mayoral election in Los Angeles is a case in point.

Of course, in this superficial phase of acceptance, the television and film industries, eager to jump on a trend, often set the tone of debate. The media message is that Latinos are talented, they will be successful, they will make money, and they are and will be good Americans. Just like us. And I have no doubt these things are happening now. Witness the explosion of the Latino middle class in the latest census figures. We lost the mayor's race in Los Angeles, but we won in San Antonio and El Paso. And Chicanos in LA will fight even harder for that political brass ring next time. But the time will come when we need to move beyond superficial acceptance in America. The time will come not just when we focus on how America is assimilating the variety and plurality of the Latino community, but when we understand that the United States, in the long run, will only be increasingly Latino. The issue of helping poor Latin American immigrants in the U.S. is not a "minority issue." It's an American issue, in the best sense of that term. When we move beyond a superficial acceptance meant to calm irrational fears, when we discuss immigration head on, then we will move toward a more profound sense of acceptance.

The constant flow of immigrants allows us to pick and choose success stories, especially from the first or second generation in the United States, another reason for this dichotomy between recent public and media acceptance of Latino culture and a lack of discussion and focus on the plight of poor immigrants. We can ignore, or even stigmatize, those who are now picking our apples or corn or grapes in the Hudson Valley, the San Joaquin Valley, or the Ohio Valley. Unlike the episodic waves of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants, Latin American immigrants to the United States will be a constant and significant stream into this country. Forever. We share a 2000-mile border with Mexico, and 500 million Latin Americans live south of that border. You can run away from these realities, or you can rage against them drunk with hate, or you can try to make it work, for all of us. What do you think is the best choice?

This constant flow of Latin American immigrants into United States also creates divisions within the Latino community, the third reason for this dichotomy between acceptance and rejection of American Latinos. I have seen with my own eyes how established immigrants --or their first or second generation children who sometimes don't know a word of Spanish anymore-- are the first to call for the militarization of the border, or the first to turn their backs on the non-English speaking construction worker who was mauled by thugs. Latinos, we can't reduce ourselves to such selfishness. The poor immigrant is part of nuestra familia. It's as simple as that.

Instead of succumbing to self-hate or self-racism, which unfortunately has been taught to all-too-many groups in the United States, we, Latinos, should show our country a different way. We should be proud of our heritage. And instead of being silent about the issue of immigration, we should be the first to help new immigrants join this American experiment.

The final reason for this dichotomous reality of American Latinos and Latin American immigrants is more complex, but no less significant. It relates to what will always be appealing and what will always be ignored by the media culture of America. As I see it, the media are at the apex of what is worst about materialism in American culture. Caricatures instead of characters. Fifteen-second sound bites instead of thoughtful debates. Pretty or scandalous images instead of thinking. In the literary field, my field of work, almost nothing is written about how Latin American immigrants survive and toil and often die in the United States. These images simply don't sell.

For this reason, I have often called for Latinos, particularly Chicanos, to define themselves, and not to let others, even the well-intentioned media, define who we are. That's why I have written stories about growing up on the Mexican-American border of El Paso, Texas. Stories about people who work and try to make a life and sometimes fail and sometimes succeed. The quotidian reality of hard work and small successes and failures is the reality we mostly live in, but too often it is the reality ignored by the American media.

So I don't mind that the wealthy and beautiful and talented Latinos are being accepted into the American family. But I do not forget where I came from. I do not forget who I am. I remember that there are others who are not photogenic or rich, those who may not know any English or may just be embarrassed by their accent. They are working hard and fighting just to stay alive. They've got more guts than most Americans I know on Manhattan's Upper Westside. They weren't born into the American Dream. They've traveled hundreds, even thousands, of miles just to be a part of it. They will never make the cover of People Magazine. But these immigrants are knocking on my door. And not only am I letting them in, but I am introducing them to my American friends so that they appreciate the full extent of mi familia.

Not long ago, I attended a children's concert by Pete Seeger at the Hudson Valley Writers' Center, where I am a member of the board of directors. I was there with my wife and two kids, and in the audience were also twenty children of migrant farm workers who had been invited to the concert as part of our outreach program. Pete Seeger is a folk legend, for good reason. Although he is no Jennifer Lopez, he jumped up and down and strummed his banjo, giving a spirited concert and connecting with the kids in Spanish and English. It was a small Sunday event, not flashy enough for any media to cover it. But crowded inside the small train station that is our writers' center, overlooking the Hudson River, we easily belonged together.

"Latinos Find an America on the Border of Acceptance" originally appeared in Newsday. Copyright 2001 by Sergio Troncoso.

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PDF of Four Teaching Guides for From This Wicked Patch of Dust is also available for teachers.

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Read the essays Why Should Latinos Write Their Own Stories? (PDF), A Day Without Ideas, and Beyond Aztlán: Chicanos in the Ivy League) from Crossing Borders: Personal Essays.